Luther cafeteria goes "trayless"

March 13, 2009

Luther College Dining Services has "gone trayless" for three months as part of the college's sustainability initiative and is now evaluating the pros and cons of trayless cafeteria operations.

Dining Services removed cafeteria trays to help reduce food waste and conserve resources. Cleaning the trays after each meal requires 700 gallons of water and two hours of dishwashing time, which sustainability advocates consider an expensive ecological and financial cost to pay for dining convenience.

Warren Palm, director of Dining Services at Luther College, first suggested the idea for a trayless cafeteria during the 2007 fall semester after reading journal articles about universities on the East Coast that removed trays and saw reduction in water, detergent, electricity, and a 30 percent decrease in food waste.

"Kitchens are traditionally one of the biggest users of water, heat and electricity on campus while also generating a huge amount of compostable and recyclable materials," said Palm. "When you add wasted food on top of that, you can see how important sustainability becomes."

Palm and Caleb Mattison, Luther's sustainability coordinator, met with Luther Student Senate and Community Assembly to discuss the possibility of trayless cafeteria dining. Although the idea was met with skepticism, the campus community leadership groups approved a two-week trial period to measure food waste with and without cafeteria trays.

The trial, which was conducted during the 2007-08 spring semester, consisted of weighing the waste from five meals using trays followed by a week of weighing waste from a similar five meals served trayless. The results revealed an 8.4 percent food waste reduction in the cafeteria, equivalent to 215 pounds of food waste.

Initial student feedback emphasized the inconveniences of trayless dining, but after a week without trays, students began to accept the change.

"Students have said that not having a tray under your plate makes the dining experience seem less institutional," said Palm. "I know some students aren't happy with the removal, but most have accepted the minor inconvenience that trayless eating brings."

Although the accuracy of the trial's results and actual benefits of the change were debated both in casual and public conversations across campus, many members of the community, including Rob Larson, Luther College associate professor of management, were convinced by the results of similar trayless initiatives at other colleges.

"I am very pleased with the adjustments that have been made and, most importantly, the willingness of the Luther student community to balance convenience with conserving resources," said Larson, a strong supporter of sustainability and conservation.

Mattison wrote a proposal during fall semester 2008-09, and Luther administration approved the proposal prior to the end of the semester. Beginning January Term 2009, the college removed the trays permanently.

"The food service management and the sustainability coordinator worked on several drafts and iterations of the proposal before the president's cabinet approved it," said Larson. "It was a very thorough and deliberate process."

To supplement the new trayless system, larger plates and glasses were purchased, and cafeteria hours were adjusted to meet the needs of athletes and musicians with late rehearsals.

"There are no specific volume or financial goals with this project, but there clearly are savings," said Larson. Over time we will see how these savings are used and if they continue, and that will be the measure of meeting the goals of the initiative."

One of the goals in Luther's five-year strategic plan is to cut the college's carbon footprint in half. Over the past two years, the college has already reduced its campus carbon footprint by 15 percent, and Palm is confident the tray removal will contribute to the efforts of reaching the 50 percent goal.

"Experts predict the earth's population will double by 2050, and composting, recycling, reducing food waste and buying local foods all help to conserve natural resources and save money," said Palm. "We all need to do our part even if it's sometimes a little inconvenient."

"I hope students as well as faculty and staff can have this small initiative serve to remind us of the opportunities we all have in our daily lives to live more responsibly and to be effective stewards of the gifts with which we are blessed," said Larson. "We make choices large and small each day that really do make a difference."